The Southern California Affordability Symposium highlights the importance of water and housing affordability in Southern California

On Friday, Feb. 7, the UCR Blum Initiative hosted the Southern California Affordability Symposium at the UCR Alumni & Visitors Center.

David Brady, director of the Blum Initiative and professor for the School of Public Policy stated that the Blum Initiative at UCR focuses on global and regional issues of poverty and in this conversation, wanted to help others understand how families make ends meet and afford the necessities of life in Southern California. “We are very interested in non-partisan and objective scientific research that can hopefully draw a richer public conversation about these issues,” stated Brady.

Dr. Kurt Schwabe, associate dean and professor for the School of Public Policy presented on water affordability in Southern California. He stated that from 2007 to 2015 water prices increased an average of 45% while income has been stagnant or decreased by an average of 6%. This affects a household’s discretionary income, which is the disposable income that is left over after subtracting the cost of water and the cost of other essential needs. As water prices rise and discretionary income falls below zero, households are forced to make tradeoffs for some of their essential needs. “This is obviously concerning for over 13 million low-income households,” stated Schwabe. Low income is defined as households that make less than 200% of the federal poverty level, or around $45,000 a year.

Schwabe went on to outline how the conversation on water affordability can be interpreted. Firstly, Schwabe stated we need to evaluate how expenditures on water and sewer services within the Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD), who supplies water to everyone living in a 555-mile radius of western Riverside County, compare with the income that its residents have to spend on water and other essential services. “If the amount we spend on water and sewer services is greater than 5%, that raises some red flags,” stated Schwabe.

Schwabe’s research focused on a household’s water expenditure ratio (WER) which is an estimate of the amount of money a household spends on water services relative to the amount of money they spend overall. He surveyed around 130,000 households and found that on average their WER rose from 0.85% in 2011 to 1.11% in 2018.

Schwabe stated that the number one issue in affordability is housing which, on average, takes up 32% of a households income followed by transportation, food and housing which take up 13, 11 and 5%, respectively. “(These factors) all are much more significant than water, they are all essential services and they all should be accessible,” stated Schwabe. He also stated that in order to have substantive impact on societal well-being, we need to identify a full range of essential services and consider where changes can have appreciable effects.

After Schwabe’s presentation, Dr. Joanna Rosen, a research assistant professor at USC’s Price School of Public Policy, spoke about the impacts of housing affordability in the Southern California region. She began by highlighting the rent burden problem affecting households in and around the Los Angeles region. A household is considered rent burdened if they pay over 30% of their income on rent and Rosen stated it is considered an important threshold, after which they begin to make the tradeoffs that had been aforementioned by Schwabe. According to Rosen, the rent burden issue is driven by higher housing costs and lower income and it ultimately contributes to neighborhood change and homelessness.

In the Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario areas, there has been a 20.4% decrease in low rent units from 2011 to 2017 meaning housing costs are increasing compared to incomes. When it comes to dealing with these issues, Rosen stated she and her team are “focused on finding new strategies and tools to help to solve these complex social issues.”

Rosen’s team conducted 36 focus groups with 400 people and a large door-to-door survey across different areas to identify how geography and communities play a role in the housing issue and how people are coping with the problem. “As people pay more income on rent and their incomes are stagnant … they face energy insecurity, they live in lower quality housing, and they reduce their spending on food,” stated Rosen. She also mentioned that affordability matters not just for individuals to avoid displacement, but because people are coping and strategizing to stay in ways that are harmful to them in the long run.

Some key takeaways she found in her research were that people were making significant and impactful tradeoffs to stay in their homes. She gave personal anecdotes of residents who lived in run-down homes with landlords who refuse to make repairs but because they have nowhere else to go, they feel stuck. Gentrification also contributes to the housing issue as housing costs increase when the incomes in that area do as well, displacing lower income families.

Rosen stated that many of these issues can be solved by thinking about rental and tenant protection and giving people the ability to create change. “If people have the ability to seek resources … allowing people to actually access the laws and creating new laws and social support to ensure they are not trapped in these situations is really important,” stated Rosen.

The symposium then transitioned to a panel consisting of the two previous presenters, Carlos Gonzalez, chief of staff to Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, Sayori Baldwin, the director of the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) and Adan Ortega, the founder of Ortega Strategies Group and executive director of the California Association of Mutual Water Companies.

A member of the audience asked who was to blame for these housing and water affordability issues and what could be done to fix it. Ortega stated that in Southern California, the governors resilience plan is already helping to solve the issue. When the Integrated Resource Plan, which evaluates the needs of people living in certain areas, is updated this year “it could make (this issue) a priority,” stated Ortega.

Despite the issues that California faces with affordability, Ortega stated that its policies are setting standards for countries like Canada, because California’s government acts with an abundance of caution to protect its residents’ health.

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